Managing a Zettelkasten using LibreOffice Writer or Microsoft Word

A Zettelkasten is a German word meaning slip box, used as a research support tool and made famous by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), who created around 90,000 cards to help him with his work. Each card holds a single idea and Luhmann developed a method of numbering notes and cross-referencing that is similar to hypertext today so that collections of cards could help him explore a topic thoroughly.

Modern implementations of a Zettelkasten often use text files to store data and mimic the properties of index cards or slips, arguing that text files are timeless. I have much sympathy with this idea, but recently I’ve taken a look at the Open Document Text (ODT) format, which is used by LibreOffice. ODT is essentially a zipped file containing the content of the document which can be accessed fairly easily. Creating content in LibreOffice has some advantages over text files because you can do things like include images more easily and share the content between systems. You can get the same result with text files, folders of images and links, but it does get a little time consuming – and if you want to spend time writing rather than fiddling with your systems it’s probably better to just get on with the activity of writing rather than building complicated systems. Although the system building is more fun…

Anyway, the question I had was whether you could create a Zettelkasten using LibreOffice Writer (or MS Word if you are so inclined). After some experimentation I came up with an approach that works in Writer fairly well. Set a page format to A5 landscape. Use a heading for each card (pressing Ctrl-2 is a shortcut for heading 2). Make your notes. Press ctrl-enter to insert a page break. Move to the next card. Use a page with heading 1 to create topic sections. Insert a table of contents at the front for easy reference. And for bonus points, highlight specific words that are important and add them to an index that you add to the end of the document so you can quickly find the pages that refer to them. Of course to make that easy, add page numbers and it doesn’t hurt to add a running head.

If this is of interest and you want more details drop a comment and I’ll expand the description.

The reason for this post, however, is that if you search for how to create a Zettelkasten using Microsoft Word or LibreOffice writer on Google you get a number of posts telling you what a Zettelkasten is, and some posts where people ask the question and get told to use text files because they’re better.

Which then raises the question, “What would ChatGPT do?”.

Here’s the answer I got.

How can I create the functions of a Zettelkasten using a single document like a microsoft word or Libreoffice writer file?

Creating a Zettelkasten using a single document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer can be a bit tricky, but it is possible. Here are some steps to follow:

  1. Start by creating a new document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer. This document will serve as the foundation for your Zettelkasten.
  2. Begin by creating a table of contents. This will allow you to quickly navigate to different sections of your Zettelkasten. To create a table of contents in Word, go to the References tab and click on Table of Contents. In Writer, go to Insert > Table of Contents.
  3. Divide your document into sections that correspond to specific topics or ideas. Each section should be focused on a single idea, and should contain a brief summary or note about that idea.
  4. Use headers and subheaders to organize your document. Each header should correspond to a major topic, while subheaders can be used to break down those topics into smaller ideas.
  5. Use hyperlinks to connect related ideas within your document. For example, if you mention an idea in one section that is relevant to another section, you can link to that section using a hyperlink.
  6. Consider using tags to categorize your ideas. You can create a list of tags at the beginning or end of your document, and then use those tags to mark relevant sections throughout the document.
  7. Keep your document up-to-date by regularly revisiting and updating your notes. As you learn more about a particular topic or idea, be sure to add those insights to your Zettelkasten.

By following these steps, you can create a functional Zettelkasten using a single document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer. It may take some time to get used to this approach, but with practice, it can be a highly effective way to organize your thoughts and ideas.

I don’t know whether a similar answer is buried somewhere in the 30,800 results on Google – after all we don’t usually go past the first page. Maybe this is entirely new knowledge – a solution to a problem that the AI has worked out which isn’t documented elsewhere in the same way. It does happen to be very close to the approach that I figured might work for me.

That still doesn’t stop it from being totally amazing.

Is there any point in writing any more?

Sunday, 9.13 pm

Sheffield, U.K.

After all, ChatGPT can do it all. It can write a post in the style of someone you want to copy. It can create a coherent and well structured outline of a topic you’re still struggling to get your head around. And it can do it in the time it takes you to make a cup of coffee.

Well, it depends on why you write. And what happens with your writing once you do.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. I started this blog to learn how to write – in particular, how to write in my own voice. That might sound strange – but what it means is that when we first try to write, we use this formal way of putting words down, like there’s a particular way to write that people expect to see. And that ends up with prose that’s no fun to read.

Along the way we read how other people write, and we remember the pieces that talk straight to us. Not pieces that talk to lots of people in vague and general terms, but the ones that take aim directly at us and talk about something we also think is important.

I write because it helps me discover what I think. Until I’ve got the words down, I don’t know what my point of view is on a topic. Ideas and concepts and links appear as the characters form themselves on the page. The act of writing is, for me, an act of thinking.

The world is too complex for your thinking alone to be enough. Lots of people have lots of thoughts, and because we can all write them down and share them now, we’re overwhelmed with words and ideas. And pictures. There are too many pictures. It’s a tsunami of content and our brains are just not designed to cope.

The tools that helped separate the good ideas from the bad ones, like peer review and publication, are straining under the weight of this content. If you’re not part of the academic world you can’t access some of them anyway. Emerging AI tools, however, can go through all the content and bubble up the ideas that are thought of as most important to the surface.

It’s like riding the wave of content in a canoe made of the words and ideas you should pay attention to – the ones that matter most and could be most helpful.

Sitting in that canoe, you can get on with thinking new thoughts that build on the best thoughts that have gone before. Thoughts that aren’t written down yet. Thoughts that are waiting for you to come along and make them real.

Write to think. Write even if no one reads what you write. And most of all, write because you want to.


Karthik Suresh

Writing as a practice


Sunday, 8.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Writing is my love. If you love something, you find a lot of time. I write for two hours a day, usually starting at midnight; at times, I start at 11. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

Writing is a process that, according to MIT, has four steps: prewriting; drafting; revising; and editing.

This misses out several important steps including: worrying, obsessing, messing, questioning, procrastinating, avoiding and complaining.

I used to think writing was a linear process. You started at the first word, put down more words, and kept going until you ran out of time.

And then you hit the publish button.

Now I think a little differently, but unpacking exactly how may not be the easiest thing to do. Let’s give it a try anyway by asking some questions.

Who do you write for?

Writing is always done for someone. When you start you often write for yourself – the act of writing is often the way in which you figure out what you think.

Sometimes people write for a specific person. Warren Buffett said that he addressed his annual letters to his sisters to help him remember to keep it accessible and jargon free.

In academic writing you write your thesis for your PhD supervisor and papers for the reviewers.

In journalism, I would guess, you write for your editor.

Somewhere along the way perhaps you get good enough or well-known enough that the gatekeepers are no longer important – and you write for your fans. You start to write the kind of stuff they expect to get from you.

Some writers throw out the rules and write however they want. I recently read an article that was written by two people who wrote separately, commented on each other’s ideas and created something that was presented as a mix of the two. It was interesting, as an idea, but hard to read as a piece of text.

How do you write?

I have always started writing and figured out where I’m going when I reached the end of the piece. That’s the way this post is written and how most of the others on this site were written.

Recently I read a piece on essay writing by Jordan Peterson and it opened my eyes to something that I had never considered before.

Peterson sets out a process to follow that starts with an outline and then goes through multiple drafts and finessing of sentences.

But the most important thing was that he wrote about how to use an outline. Instead of writing an outline and then going on to write the paper as a linear process he described how you should actually go from one to the other and back again. Write your outline, start filling it in and then go back from what you’ve written to the outline – and change it if it makes sense.

This may seem like an obvious and trivial thing to you but it’s actually really quite significant. We think that we make a plan and then go and execute it, put up scaffolding and then put up the building. What Peterson’s process gives you permission to do is alter the plan and move the scaffolding as part of your writing process. Not just permission – it encourages you to go between the two making your outline and text work together and sing.

How do you think?

Peterson’s essay is about the mechanics – about how to create a structure and form your thoughts. But how do you get those thoughts in the first place?

They come from reading and taking notes and reflecting on what you’ve collected – and that means you need tools to do that. Note-taking tools, idea-capturing tools, and concept-writing tools.

There’s an idea called literate programming where you think about what you want to do and put it down in prose and then you write the code that implements what you want.

This could work in writing as well.

Imagine writing down what you’re trying to say as a comment on the page and then writing what you want to say as text on the page. One bit is about the thinking – I’d like to say this thing in this way and connect it to another idea from over there but how do I do that and it’s really quite hard – and the other bit is about the sentence that you’re actually going to include in the paper.

You can use this idea of literate programming to do literate writing – putting comments and content in the same document and extracting the content that will be published while preserving the thinking that went into it – thinking that may contain some of those other elements that you don’t get in the four step writing model.

Why do you write?

The days when you write for money are numbered. AI systems like ChatGPT will read and summarise material better than you will be able to soon. They’re the ultimate research assistant and the cost of what they produce will inevitably trend towards zero – the marginal cost of production.

In the future you will write only because you want to.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

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